March 25: Today is the second-last day of the Castlemaine State Festival, prompting a last-minute rush to catch closing shows. Artist-built and artist-run ‘studio village’ Lot 19 was on the list.
Castlemaine is a mining town with an ambivalent relationship with that lucrative but devastating industry. Castlemaine Art Museum and Lot 19 shared portions of a larger exhibition The Extractive Frontier: Mining for Art curated by Beverly Knight of Alcaston Gallery specialising in Australian Indigenous art, and Associate Professor Clare Wright of La Trobe University, whose current research project is Red Dirt Dreaming: Re-Imagining the History of Mining in Australia. The exhibitions brought together twenty-one artists, indigenous, national and international, and included two stunning photographic prints. These were the result of a collaboration between Taloi Havini and Stuart Miller.
Havini was born in 1981 into the Nakas clan in Arawa of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, which in 1964 became the site of copper mining by Australia’s Conzinc Rio Tinto. In the face of the big miner’s incursion the people of Bougainville found themselves stripped of all land rights under Crown Law mining regulations and the Moroni Valley became the world’s largest open-cut mine. I can attest, from my own ill-fated fights with mining companies as a shire councillor, that the law also has effect in Australia, enshrined in the right of ‘the Crown’ to minerals underneath both crown and ‘freehold’ land.
Havini’s own pictures (below, not in the exhibition) tell the story of the aftermath of unregulated mining and document the poisonous wastes that still percolate from the central ranges of the Panguna mine in central Bougainville, through the Kawerong and Jaba River, over the floodplains on the west coast and into the ocean, leaving a toxic verdigris discharge.
Resentment against the mine and the fact that most profits left the island were major catalysts in the unrest in Bougainville in the 1970s and 1980s, leading to the Bougainville Civil War, which lasted from 1988 until 1998, leaving an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Bougainvilleans dead and over 60,000 had become displaced persons by the mid-1990s and thousands more had fled to the nearby Solomon Islands.
As it is in Central Victoria, where Havini’s images are being exhibited in the Castlemaine State Festival, the virgin forests and rich fertile soil that once occupied this area are unlikely ever to return. The animals that once lived in the valley have either been buried or killed by copper leaching. Havini emigrated to Australia aged nine, and lives in Melbourne, Sydney and Buka, working in ceramics, photography, printmedia, video and mixed media installation.
Her Blood Generation series is a collaboration with advertising photographer Stuart Miller and commemorates the moment when women landowners stood against mining on their land traditionally granted to them through matrilineal land systems; the basis of their subsistence as well as their sacred place. Opposing the mine’s construction, the proud and defiant women chained themselves and their children to the trucks in protest.
To Havini’s direction, Miller visually recounts the story through a series of dramatised vignettes around the Panguna copper mine, the site of the bloody conflict that raged between 1988–2001 and still the locus of memories of loss and despair. The most powerful is this confrontation of Sami and a giant earth-mover.
I remember the image as black and white in the exhibition, but even in this reproduction the colour is subdued as if coated in verdigris, in contrast with the natural environment. The shovel and the tiny female figure, made all the more diminutive by being posed at a greater distance, are placed just either side of the centre line. The brute forms of the mechanical shovel loom across an entire half of the image, opposing wisps of mist that drift over the mountain at right. Mining had ceased on 15 May 1989, and the image is a reenactment 20 years later by one of the so called ‘Blood Generation’; those born into or immediately after the conflict.
Accompanying the image above, and actually part of a triptych (perhaps lack of space prevented the entire group being exhibited) is the vivid image of a man up to his neck in opalescent, but almost metallic, water. The sculptural form of an outrigger canoe is placed in alignment with the edge and bottom of frame. Miller, a well-practiced studio professional, lights the scene with flash as he does with most of the series, inlaying the figures with solid relief into their environmental settings. By lighting the man’s face he opens what would otherwise be dark silhouette against the sun coming in from rear left, and illuminating he inside of the canoe in such a way as to pull its form inside out. A disturbing image results. These were big prints and yet crystal clear where the focus of the images was placed. In 2009 when they were shot, no doubt the originals were on film. Those displayed were digital prints made in 2015.
Made on location in Bougainville, the series consists of portraits of sombre, sublimely handsome young males and females photographed variously amongst the mine tailings, in mountain streams, in boxing rings, in thick undergrowth or on abandoned runways.
Created as talks resumed around the reopening of the mine, Havini’s direction of the series has produced unforgettable portraits. They assert the strength and cultural resilience these island people who are unlikely to forget and give in to the avaricious forces of mining.